One of the hardest things NBA teams have to do is determine how a college player’s game will translate to the professional level. For every sure thing like Michael Jordan, there is a Sam Bowie. For every guy who breaks the mold—Charles Barkley suddenly lost two inches when he left Auburn yet still was an undersized rebounding monster—there are perfect specimens who never come close to expectations.
With the NBA draft coming this Thursday, which college players from the Class of 2013 will become the expected superstar, the biggest bust or the shocking surprise? A lot depends on the team they go to, but here’s my take on the top players and deep sleepers in this year’s draft.
THE TOP GUYS
Nerlens Noel, C, Kentucky The draft’s “obvious” first pick, but he comes with a ton of baggage. First, he has a wrecked knee that won’t be healed until December. Second, he just turned 19 years old. Third, he’s had trouble staying academically eligible, which to me says he’s either dumb or unmotivated. Put all those together, and you have trouble.
Cleveland has the first pick, and if I were them, I’d trade the pick. The question is whether anyone wants to pay the price Noel is supposedly worth. Regardless, bringing a 19-year-old kid into an adult atmosphere where he can’t do the only thing he’s good at, and that just screams for him to get in trouble.
When Noel was first injured, I immediately said he should have spent another year in school, take some classes and learn something about life. Instead, he’ll be a kid lost in an adult world. Finally, even if he comes back healthy, he may not have the body (at 6-11, 206 pounds, he’s a taller version of Shaun Livingston) or motivation to be the defensive presence expected from him.
Ben McLemore, SG, Kansas Here’s the guy I’d take as the first pick in the draft. At 6-foot-5, he’s perfectly sized for an NBA shooting guard. He has NBA three-point range and he can create his own shot (so important going from college to the pros—ask Adam Morrison), yet he’s also proven he can see teammates in the flow of the offense (averaging 2.0 assists as the team’s leading scorer). I can see him coming into the NBA like Damien Lillard did last year with Portland and be a big contender for Rookie of the Year.
Alex Len, C, Maryland If Cleveland is set on getting a big man, this is the guy. Compare him to Noel, and he’s two inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. Yet he runs the court well while being a massive defensive presence. Frankly, I think he’s a better player than Noel right now, and the only thing Noel has on him is “potential.” But “potential” only happens if the player wants to improve. I’d love to have Len as my third or fourth option on offense, be a stopped on defense, block out and rebound. He could become Alonzo Mourning.
Otto Porter, SF, Georgetown Suddenly Porter is the hot player in the draft. I’ve seen him going as high as #3, behind Noel and McLemore. He’s an incredible athlete with a long wingspan, but he’s another scorer who can’t shoot. He’ll be a good sixth man, but will probably be drafted by a team who needs him to start.
Anthony Bennett, PF, UNLV Here’s another guy who’s leaping up draft boards, anywhere from #3 to #8. Everyone, take a deep breath and wake up. He’s Anthony Bennett! He’s a freshman! He’s made his name by being a physical monster. That won’t happen in the NBA. When he runs into guys his size, his lack of basketball fundamentals will hurt him. Yes, he could continue to improve (the dreaded word “potential”), or he could have topped out. Here’s a guy who’s probably made a good move by entering the NBA draft before scouts realize he’s not getting any better.
GREAT COLLEGE PLAYERS, BUT…
Trey Burke, PG, Michigan I am a huge fan of Trey Burke, college player. But I’m not sure his game translates to the NBA. He’s only 6-foot-1, doesn’t have a three-point shot (only 38 percent last season) and isn’t a great defensive player. He’s a winner, which could make up for some of that. I just don’t think he’s a starting point guard. He’s Golden State’s backup PG Jarrett Jack—a winner you want at the end of the game as long as you have talent around him. You can get Isaiah Canaan of Murray State in the second round and get the same guy.
Shabazz Muhammad, SF, UCLA Let’s forget his off-court troubles at UCLA. Hell, let’s forget the on-court troubles (“Screw you, Larry Drew, for winning the game. I wanted the ball.”). At 6-6 he’s not tall enough to be a small forward and not able to get his own shot at shooting guard. He’s not a good dribbler and a Black Hole as a passer. When he doesn’t get the ball, he pouts. In the NBA, he’ll be a cancer on the bench when he doesn’t get minutes. At best, he’s a poor man’s Corey Maggette. Hope your team’s rival drafts him.
Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana I’m not sure why he declared for the draft. At best, he had half a season worth talking about. I think his ascendance was more due to Cody Zeller’s decent. He’s another college scorer who actually can’t shoot, and that will show in the pros. He’d be Player of the Year if he stayed in college for his senior year. Instead, he’ll be stranded on the bench of a good team or scoring 12 points a game on less than 40 percent shooting for a team that wins 20 games.
Cody Zeller, C, Indiana Zeller went from preseason Player of the Year to a guy who underperformed in the NCAA tournament. He averaged 44 percent shooting, 12.3 ppg, 6.3 rebounds and 3.7 turnovers when it mattered. I question his court IQ—I’ll always remember him getting lost on the backdoor cut that allowed Butler to beat Indiana. But he is 7-foot and athletic, and if he lands with a team who only needs him to be an energy guy, he’ll be OK.
Kelly Olynyk, PF, Gonzaga Because of the connection to Gonzaga, many people think he’ll run the same course as Adam Morrison. Hey, not every Duke guy becomes JJ Reddick! Olynyk is for real as a 7-footer who can play power forward. I’d compare him to a poor-man’s Tim Duncan. Yes, he can be that good. And being drafted in the middle of the first round, I can see him not being forced into the starting lineup.
Tony Mitchell, SF/PF, North Texas He’s 6-foot-9 and doesn’t really have an NBA position, but considering you can get him late in the first round or early in the second, he’s worth a shot. Mitchell is a solid defender, which you don’t see a lot coming out of college. You can teach a player how to play offense, but defense is about motivation. This guy could be a larger Charles Barkley or a saner Dennis Rodman.
GUYS WHO WERE SMART
Marcus Smart, SG, Oklahoma State
Russ Smith, SG/SF, Louisville
Mitch McGary, PF, Michigan
Doug McDermott, SF, Creighton
Joe Jackson, PG, Memphis
Spencer Dinwiddie, SG, Colorado
For the first time in many years, a number of high-end college players declared and then backed out of the draft. Congratulations to these guys for seeing the big picture, taking another year of college and realizing the pro money will be there in 2014. Looking forward to watching you this winter!